Home > Film, Internet, Reviews > Film Review: The Social Network

Film Review: The Social Network

The Social Network (2010; Directed by David Fincher)

Note: A shortened version of this review was published on January 12, 2011 as part of PopMatters’ Best Films of 2010 list.

Want some Cheetos? Got some in my pocket here...

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s foreboding dramatization of Facebook’s inception and expansion darkly suggests that the internet “revolution” has not nurtured the good in our souls, but only amplified our most primal driving impulses. This should not be news to anyone, really; the idealistic naivete of the early days of the internet, when it was seen by some initial enthusiasts as the grand uniting tool that would finally throw off the gilded yoke of capitalist oppression, was very quickly bought and sold, monetized with so much filthy lucre. The internet didn’t really fundamentally change the world, but the world is always fundamentally changing the internet.

Mark Zuckerberg (played here by Jesse Eisenberg as an obsessed, driven, sharp-tongued misanthrope) and his simple yet expansive vision did change the internet, but how much did he really change our world? According to The Social Network, on a basic level, not that much. For all that’s been made of Sorkin’s glib Hollywoodism in fictionalizing Zuckerberg’s inspiration as being driven by the rejection of a girl (films about creative people must need have their muses, even if they’re negative ones), dozens of other motivations and driving forces are also floating in the ether. Not only thwarted sexual desire is in play, but betrayal, envy, male competitiveness, lust for fame, misogyny, anti-establishment fervour, and (quite prominently) differences in class and social status. These are the myriad fuels for this upheaval, as they are in every important social upheaval. Facebook has not really made us more than we were, but made us more of what we are: striving, grasping beasts fighting for the limited space available to us and, just maybe, a few inches more.

On the level of technical execution, Fincher takes the script’s underlying Hobbesian philosophy and shoots, edits, and breathes it full of life in the way he knows best: as an ominous borderline thriller, a horror film in which no blood is drawn but much deeper traumas are inflicted. Aided immesurably in this effort by the amazing electro-score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher animates the trademarked witty talkativeness of an Aaron Sorkin script with a black existential hopelessness. This is, at its core, a very lonely movie, entirely by intention. Everyone is always talking to each other and saying clever things (Sorkin, remember), but they’re only occasionally talking about anything but themselves. They’re also saying so many very cruel things that only the purest venom has any effect; the climactic slight in the opening scene that finally leads to Erica (Rooney Mara) dumping the self-fixated Zuckerberg is a knock at her social status (she’s a mere Boston University attendee, not a Harvard grandee like him), but he’s so thoughtless so often before that, it’s a wonder she waits for that moment to walk out.

I swear, that asterisk in the band name was all Fatone's idea, man...

Fincher finds a way to give verve and heft to the endless dialogue scenes, at once plunging us into them and keeping us at a remove. But he always makes sure we feel more than a little uneasy, more than a little frightened. The scene in a noisy, colourfully-lit dance club where Napster-founding bad-boy Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a slick but overpraised performance) plies Zuckerberg with visions of the billion-dollar potential of Facebook – not to mention the deadly possibilities of failure – is staged by Fincher like Mephistopheles tempting Faust, with Timberlake’s boy-band face lit from below by a creepy blue-magenta glow.

In the rare scene that is entirely visual and requires none of Sorkin’s rapid-fire wordiness, Fincher lets his filmmaking prowess run rampant. A sequence depicting the Winklevoss twins (played with a SFX assist by Armie Hammer and humourously referred to by Zuckerberg as “the Winklevii”) losing a rowing regatta in Britain by less than a boat length (a none-too-subtle metaphor for the way they were always just behind Zuckerberg’s internet phenomenon, for which they provided one kernel of inspiration) is shot with fuzzed-out heart-pounding intensity, scored by an ominous Reznor/Ross take on Grieg’s already ominous “In The Hall of the Mountain King”. It’s a bit of showing-off from a master filmmaker, but it’s no less impressive for all that.

The notable performance in the film beyond Eisenberg, Timberlake and the doubled Hammer is undoubtedly Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s initial partner, financier, best friend, and, in the film’s view, last tether to human reality. Garfield swaggers but also roils in self-doubt, shows tenderness for his anti-social programmer buddy and feels betrayed by him in a quasi-Shakespearean sense when he’s muscled out of the expanding Facebook. Garfield is not the only person who gets discarded on the way to a brave new world, and Saverin is still a billionaire even with his comparatively miniscule share in the company, so we can’t feel too sorry for him, ultimately. But like the peripheral female characters who get shuffled away by the froth of male competition, he’s too human for truly massive success in the lizard-brained world of big-time American business. The Zuckerberg of The Social Network gets where he does not despite his anti-social tendencies but indeed specifically because of them; the same ability to see the immense social potential of the internet makes him ill-suited to true (“IRL”, as they say on the web) interactions.

They're just pretending to know what that means, you know...

This view is perhaps a bit glib, not to mention the product of a fuddy-duddy anti-internet-culture mentality (and there is no shortage of that generational gap in this film, to be sure). But there’s much more to The Social Network than mere disdain for Web 2.0; this is a film that digs deeper than a couple of men from an older generation telling kids to shut down their devices and read a book. In an endlessly reflexive culture, one in which we discuss in person how we discussed what happened in person on the internet, where social interactions even on the supposedly liberating worldwide web have become even more proscribed and rule-bound than their real-world counterparts, this is a movie that pokes and prods cleverly and potently at the underlying forces and assumptions behind it all.

Its conclusions may not inspire much hope, but then it’s hard to argue that they should. The final scene of Zuckerberg repeatedly refreshing the webpage he built, waiting for it to tell him that he has a friend (as the Fab Four mockingly sing “Baby You’re a Rich Man”), is an image for our technological age, but also for all modern social ages. If The Social Network was only a film about the technical achievement of Facebook and the glory of the social web, as some of its internet-savvy detractors seem to wish it was, its shelf-life would be that of a viral video. But what makes it a potential classic and possible zeitgeist film is the connections it builds to more powerful impulses in the human character.

Categories: Film, Internet, Reviews
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